Posts Tagged ‘empathy’

Sue Monk Kidd on empathy and the purpose and power of literature to enter the common heart

November 10, 2020

It’s sometimes serendipitous how one thing can lead to another while surfing the internet. I came across this tweet by Alicia Keys about her recent conversation with Sue Monk Kidd. They were discussing each other’s books. Alicia had just published, More Myself, and Sue, The Book of Longings. A previous book, The Secret Life of Bees, was made into a movie (2008). Alicia posted the podcast on her YouTube channel AliciaKeys.lnk.to/AKSMK.

Sue Monk Kidd is a novelist, essayist, and best-selling author. She has received wide acclaim for her books on feminine spirituality and theology. Her inspiring lectures explore the intersection of writing, creativity, and soul. I wanted to know more about this author and found an intriguing title to a talk she gave in Saint Paul at a Westminster Town Hall Forum. The live talk, Sue Monk Kidd: Life is a Story, was sponsored by SPNN on February 11, 2014.

Sue Monk Kidd (SMK) gave a profound talk about how she became a writer later in life, what the act of writing means to her, and how it can be used to shine a light on injustices, particularly with issues of women and race, giving readers a window into the lives of her female characters. Her spirituality is connected to justice and compassion. For her, one of the important purposes of literature is to enhance empathy, allowing readers to enter what Emerson called “the common heart.”

She mentions her favorite authors and books, and had stenciled some of their quotes on her walls, which informed her life and work as a writer. I transcribed some of her many inspiring comments from the talk. The hyperlinked phrases will take you to those segments in the video.

creativity and the writing life

Introducing the idea of creativity and the role of writing in her life, SMK says, “Well, creativity, I think, is essentially a spiritual experience, at least it is for me. I think it is a conversation that one has between one’s self and one’s soul. It’s not always a good conversation, but it is some kind of conversation.”

She then references the poet Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet, where he tells a young man who’s written him for advice: “So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it.”

moments of being…a silence beneath my words

She reiterates this notion. “I think there’s a realm inside us. We could call it the inner life, or the interior life, or the life of the soul or something else. Merton often referred to it as the true self. And I think my 30-year old self was trying to start up a conversation with this place. What I suppose I have in mind here is a kind of contemplative experience. It’s very easy to lose touch with this part of ourselves, especially in our contemporary culture. I think we often feel, at least I do, besieged by life.

I think the world seduces us with an artificial sense of urgency sometimes. But the soul doesn’t move at the same pace as the world. The creative life doesn’t, at least mine doesn’t. I think it has a completely different slower pace about it.

So contemplative moments, I think, moments of being, help us, help me cultivate this life I’m talking about. I often say to myself that there must be a silence beneath my words. If there is not a deep silence beneath my words, then my words are probably empty.

the real power of literature

When asked what does she hope readers would take away from her work, she references what the female protagonists go through in her books. “My hope I suppose, if I had to articulate that, would be that readers would have a felt experience of what it’s like to be an enslaved person in the 19th century; or a white woman without any rights, with shockingly few rights; or what it’s like to be a 14-year old girl looking for home and belonging; or a woman adrift in the middle of her marriage; or a 50-year old woman trying to find the 3rd act. What does it feel like?”

“And I’m talking of course about empathy, which is taking an other’s experience and making it one’s own. I think that is perhaps the most mysterious transaction in the human soul. And I think it’s the real power of literature.”

empathy…the common heart…an intrinsic unity with all of humanity

While in college SMK studied Ralph Waldo Emerson, which is where she learned about his concept of “the common heart.”

He described it as a place inside every human where we share an intrinsic unity with all of humanity. Now this idea has remained with me all of these years. I have never forgotten it. And as a novelist I have to believe in this place. And as a person I believe in this place.”

“So I began by saying that, for me, creativity is a conversation with one’s soul. And I think in that sense maybe writing has been my longest prayer. But I also think, that in this sense that readers go to the common heart, that they can find their way into the common heart, a portal through a book, that reading becomes their prayer too.”

distractions…contemplative rhythm…conscious loitering…listening

The most difficult part of writing for her is the solitude—the paradoxical need for it and the isolation that it brings. She describes her process. “I find that, I have to find, particularly when I’m writing, ‘a contemplative rhythm’. I like to refer to it as ‘conscious loitering’. Because loitering is really a good thing in a lot of ways. It’s just to, to be, without any purpose other than being within oneself. And this centers me; it grounds me. It allows me most of all, the time and place to have this conversation that I need to have with this deeper part of myself, or to go to that deeper part of myself and to listen.”

She tries to avoid social media. “I think listening is so important. I don’t know how to do that with all of this, you know, Twitter and Facebook, and all of this that is going on. It’s kind of a whirlwind, and I think our attention span is shrinking dramatically with it. And I’m about the long form. So it’s attention, actually, I think for many writers, and it is for me. And I kinda go back and forth in these worlds and try to navigate both of them and sometimes do both of them poorly.”

In a previous post, famous songwriters have said a similar thing about the need to be alone undisturbed where the mind can idle (loiter). Ideas come along, get fiddled with, and inspire lyrics turning them into songs.

fundamental to writing is the courage to find and believe in your self

When asked what advice she would give to a young writer just getting started, she shared what she had written her daughter in a card the night before they would drive her to college. “Be true to yourself. Have the courage to be true to yourself, and stand by yourself. It was as simple as that. And maybe that is really the key.”

“You know writing, as I said, is an act of courage. It’s about having something to say and the ability to say it. But the real thing is about the courage to say it at all. And it has to do with some sense of truth in one’s self, and finding that truth, and being willing to have an authentic conversation with it.”

“So I think I would say that, believe in yourself, but first of all find the self you want to stand by, and then believe in that self, because that’s fundamental to writing.”

related blog posts on writing

Writers on Writing–What Writing Means To Writers | Elizabeth Gilbert—Some Thoughts On Writing | Words of Wisdom on Writing from Literary Lights | Burghild Nina Holzer inspires us to write and discover who we are and what we have to say | John O’Donohue’s 4 short lines say it all for poets | The perils of praise or blame for young writers. New ways to help students find their own voice | Letters to a Young Poet Quotes by Rainer Maria Rilke | Rainer Maria Rilke and Carl Jung on learning how to live with life’s unanswerable questions

Journeying god—traditional Ghanaian prayer song

March 10, 2013
journeying god
I found this beautiful traditional prayer song from Ghana, and photo, posted in the Panhala Archive. The translator is unknown.

Journeying god,
pitch your tent with mine
so that I may not become deterred
by hardship, strangeness, doubt.
Show me the movement I must make
toward a wealth not dependent on possessions,
toward a wisdom not based on books,
toward a strength not bolstered by might,
toward a god not confined to heaven.
Help me to find myself as I walk in other’s shoes.

Ken Wilber said meditation can change the world. Jaochim Chissano showed it could – Steve Taylor.

December 19, 2012

Can Meditation Change the World?
The amazing story of the ‘meditating president.’
Published on December 10, 2012 by Steve Taylor in Out of the Darkness

Ken WilburLast week a group of my students were giving a presentation on the spiritual philosopher Ken Wilber. It included a video interview in which Wilber remarked, ‘The best way to stop famine in the world is to meditate.’ Some students were outraged, and my initial thought was that the comment was glib and offensive. Surely the best way to stop famine is to provide food, to donate money, or at least to end conflict or reduce corruption? However, there is a case study which illustrates Wilber’s meaning very clearly. It’s the story of the ‘meditating president’, Joachim Chissano of Mozambique.

In 1992, Mozambique’s civil war came to an end, after 15 years of devastation, and around a million casualties. The country was completely broken, and showing all signs of being trapped in the cycle of conflict and corruption which has afflicted many African countries. But Joachim Chissano – whose forces had won the war – surprised the world by acting sensibly and empathically. Rather than trying to shore up his own power base and enacting revenge, Chissano treated the rebel forces who had been trying to overthrow his government with respect. He made compromises, promised there would be no prosecutions or punishments and offered the rebels half of the places in the Mozambiquan army. He gave them the chance of gaining power through political means. Rather than trying to crush the rebels, he began to work with them.

Two years later, Mozambique’s first ever multi-party elections were held, and Chissano and the former rebel leader came face to face in the polls. Chissano won the election, and set about the task of establishing lasting peace by reducing poverty. Between 1997 and 2003, almost three million people were rescued from extreme poverty, out of a total population of almost 20 million. This lead to a 35% decrease in the number of children dying under the age of five, and an increase of 65% in the number of children going to primary school. Through Chissano’s ability to set aside differences and connect with his former enemies, Mozambique was brought back from the brink of self-destruction and has instead become one of Africa’s most stable and peaceful countries.

What was it that made Chissano so rational and compassionate as a leader?

Joachim Chissano

In 1992, he learned Transcendental Meditation. Quickly becoming aware of the benefits of the practice himself, he taught it to his family, then his cabinet ministers and his wider government. In 1994, it became a requirement for all military and police recruits to meditate twice a day, for 20 minutes.

Chissano himself is in no doubt that this collective meditation was responsible for the peace and increasing prosperity of the country. As he said, ‘The result has been political peace and balance in nature in my country…The culture of war has to be replaced by the culture of peace. For that purpose, something deeper has to be changed in our mind and in our consciousness to prevent the recurrence of war.’

In 2004, Chissano’s second term in office came to end. Rather than pursuing a third term – as he would have been legally able to do under Mozambique law – he stepped aside. Since then he has been an elder statesman, campaigning for peace and working as an envoy and negotiator for the United Nations. In 2007, on his 68th birthday, he was awarded Africa’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the $5 million prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

This is Wilber’s point, of course. In the short term, meditation reduces anger and aggression. In the long term, it increases our capacity for empathy, compassion and rationality. It leads to less self-centred behaviour, and reduces cravings for power and wealth. It generates a sense of well-being which makes us less liable to be affected by slights or prejudices.

Research has confirmed these effects. In 2003, scientists at the University of Wisconsin scanned the brain of people with a long experience of Buddhist meditation. They found that their left pre-frontal lobes – the areas of the brain linked with positive moods and emotions – were unusually active. In other words, they seemed to be happier than normal. In a 2011 study at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness 16 people meditated for an average of 27 minutes each day. MRI scans after 8 weeks showed increased ‘grey matter’ in parts of the brain associated with compassion, introspection and learning.

So Wilber’s seemingly glib comments may well be right. Human social behaviour is a manifestation of our inner state. Discord in the world stems from discord in our minds, and there will only be harmony and peace in the world once there is harmony and peace inside us.

Steve Taylor is a lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of the Human Mind. Eckhart Tolle has called his work ‘an important contribution to the shift in consciousness happening on our planet at this time.’ stevenmtaylor.co.uk | Follow Steve on Facebook and Twitter

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What Steve Taylor says in this Psychology Today article is true. In addition, there have also been hundreds of scientific studies on Transcendental Meditation showing improvements in mental and emotional development as well as health and social behavior. See Hard evidence grows for including meditation in government-sponsored health programs and Excellent article by Tom Jacobs on Meditation: Strong Preventative Medicine for Heart Patients.

But one of the most striking effects is the impact large numbers of people practicing Transcendental Meditation together in large groups in one or more places can have on their environment. This is what happened in Mozambique. The longtime drought also came to an end as balance was restored in nature; the rain came!

Over fifty studies have scientifically documented the profound and measurable benefits of this approach to peace. Many have been published in respected peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Conflict Resolution, 1988, 32: 776–812; Social Indicators Research, 1999, 47: 153-201; Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 2003, 36 (1-4): 283-302; Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2005, 17(1): 339-373; Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 2005, 17(1): 285-338; and Journal of Scientific Exploration, 2009, 23(2): 139-166.

For a scientific explanation behind the power of large groups collectively practicing the Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi program including Yogic Flying, read The Power of The Collective, by John Hagelin. Also see this Op-Ed peace piece spreading around the world: Reducing Tension in the Middle East

And here is a newly published study on this topic: Can group meditation prevent violent crime? Surprisingly, the data suggests yes: New study (SAGE Open Apr 2016, 6 (2).

One last point, and that is comparing different meditation practices and generalizing their results can be a bit misleading. With the aid of fMRI, EEG, and other methods, we can now see that different parts of the brain are effected by different meditation techniques, which utilize their own approaches, like concentration, open monitoring, or transcending. To better understand these differences and outcomes scientists have created categories of meditation, matching approaches with their scientific measurements. See Are all meditation techniques the same?. And this more recently published paper using fMRI:  New study highlights unique state of “restful alertness” during Transcendental Meditation.

For a current perspective on how TM has been successfully applied in various settings, see this recent video presentation: John Hagelin speaks on meditation as a powerful tool for health, education & post-traumatic stress at TEDxWomen 2012.

Read two reviews of Can meditation change the world? in the January 28, 2013, UK TM News blog, and below in a print copy from the February 2013 issue (Vol. 19, No. 5.) of UK Transcendental Meditation News. Click twice on the image to read it.

Update: Athens Democracy Award Goes to Mozambique’s Joaquim Chissano. This article, published Sept 18, 2018, references President Chissano’s use of TM. “Besides bringing peace, reconciliation, stable democracy and economic progress to Mozambique, and supporting LGBT rights in Africa, Chissano is said to have introduced Transcendental Meditation techniques to government officials, police and military.”

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